Poetry may be nice to read—but do we really need to spend time studying it? This week on Home School Heartbeat, our guest Kathy Weitz explains why poetry is worth including in your homeschool program.
“[J]ust read and enjoy poetry together with your children. Make it part of your everyday life.”—Kathy Weitz
Mike Smith: This week, I'm talking with Kathy Weitz, a longtime homeschooler and one of the authors of the curriculum “Classical Writing.” Kathy, up until a few decades ago, poetry was just assumed to be part of a well-rounded education. Remind us why it’s still important today.
Kathy Weitz: Mike, poetry is the chosen form for a lot of the foundational literature of Western civilization. Certainly the Bible, which is full of poetry (and not just in the Psalms)—also Homer, and Virgil, and Milton, and many other great literary works—were all written in poetic form.
These all are part of what is called the Great Conversation. And what is best in Western literature and culture for the last 2,000 years assumes familiarity with these great works. Even our own Founding Fathers, and greatest statesmen of the last few centuries, almost to a man, quote the great and noble poetry of the past.
Mike: Kathy, we’ve already discussed the value of teaching poetry, and I’m sure our listeners are eager to add this important component to their children’s education. But for most parents listening, their own experience with poetry is very limited—in fact, they may not be sure they enjoy it themselves! Tell us some of the practical methods you’ve used to make this process really fun with your children.
Kathy: Well first of all, you need to just read and enjoy poetry together with your children. Make it part of your everyday life. Read a poem or two aloud with your children every day, and a variety of types of poetry. Memorize poetry. In this case, familiarity actually breeds enjoyment!
Begin in toddlerhood, and continue this practice through high school. Reread family favorites and memorize them as a family. One quick and easy way to do this is just to repeat a poem throughout the day: at bedtime, mealtime, snack time—and it’s very easy to memorize poetry in this way.
And another thing is to learn to scan poetry, and this means to determine its rhyme and meter. Much of the beauty and meaning of poetry is found in the form, and learning to understand and recognize these forms really helps children to enjoy poetry even more.
Mike: Kathy, you advise starting poetry studies pretty early in a child’s education, is that right?
Kathy: Yes. I believe you should start memorizing poetry with your children as soon as they can string sentences together. And then add the elements of formal poetry study in their elementary and high school years.
Mike: Where’s the best place to begin, Kathy? Can you recommend types of poems, or particular collections, that you’ve found to be good starting points?
Kathy: Look to the enduring poetry. The classics of the nineteenth and twentieth century are a great place to start. Every child should know Mother Goose and nursery rhymes. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Child’s Garden of Verses is wonderful for every age. No one should miss Lewis Carroll’s poetry, Jabberwocky—every child should memorize that. Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories.
A great resource I’ve found is called Favorite Poems Old and New, and it has kind of a mish-mash of all kinds of great things that children love. There are psalms, hymns, sacred poetry, poetry of American history. Older students should really study the Romantic and Victorian poets to understand philosophies that were instrumental in founding our country. Christian poets: John Dunne, George Herbert. And of course the epic poems of Western civilization: the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Aeneid, the Divine Comedy, Paradise Lost, and others.
Mike: Kathy, when you’re teaching parents how to teach poetry, what methods do you recommend for working with and understanding a poem?
Kathy: Well, besides reading and memorizing, which we’ve already talked about, do teach your children how to scan a poem. Teach them to identify the meter and recognize the form. There’s a fairly simple body of knowledge that you and your students would need to master to identify the most common forms found in Western poetry.
At home we do lots of practice on paper. Once you’ve learned the basics, you’ll find it’s really not very difficult to incorporate these studies into just daily poetry reading. I read a poem aloud, and then I ask my children to tell me the meter and rhyme scheme. It’s simple and often they are quicker to recognize it than I am.
Mike: Where should they start (that is, our kids start) when writing their own poems?
Kathy: Alwaysstart with imitation. Ask your students to imitate the rhyme, the meter, and the grammar structure of a well-written poem. And work on it together. Put it up on the white board. We’ve had a great time doing this—this is a very fun and rewarding thing to do.
Mike Smith: Kathy, you’ve already listed some of the many ways poetry can be beneficial to us. But let’s come back to that from a non-academic angle. Speaking for yourself, how have you benefitted spiritually, morally, and emotionally from your own study of poetry?
Kathy Weitz: Well poetry, as one of the fine arts, is a reflection of the Creator. Even the word poem is derived from the Greek word poie-o, which means, “I create.” So the purpose of all art, including poetry, should be to reflect the Creator, and to show what is good, true, and beautiful. Reading worthwhile poetry points me to the Creator Himself, even if it’s not distinctly Christian poetry.
Also, through the molding and shaping of language, poets move the hearts and minds and souls of men, helping us to see things in new ways. In my own life, the Lord has used poetry, and particularly the poetry of the great hymns of the faith, to impress deep spiritual truths on my heart, and also given me words and thoughts to express my praise and adoration to Him.
Mike Smith: Kathy, that’s fascinating, and I must say very encouraging to me. And thanks for being with us this week. And until next time, I’m Mike Smith.